Jim Kelley
Thursday April 3rd, 2008

The NHL doesn't hand out an award for executive of the year. The logic of that is something akin to handing out 30 games to Chris Simon for stomping on the leg of an opposing player and eight to Chris Pronger for his "foot drop" in similar fashion. It simply doesn't make sense.

So to borrow a line from Dickie Dunn of Slap Shot fame, we'll try our best to "capture the spirit of the thing" and award the non-award to Nashville Predators general manager David Poile.

What, you thought it should go to Ottawa's Bryan Murray?

That's the beauty of an 82-game season.

When it started, Murray, who took over for the fired John Muckler, saw "his" team get off to one of the greatest starts in NHL history. The Senators won 15 of their first 17 games and were on pace to challenge the best won-lost ratio in NHL history.

As I type this, the Sens are on the cusp of perhaps not making the playoffs, a collapse so spectacular that it rivals the fall of team owner Eugene Melnyk, who in the eyes of the Securities and Exchange Commission and assorted other regulatory groups must give explanations with regard to charges of stock fraud in his Biovail Corp. despite the fact that he has already paid some $10 million U.S. to settle those charges.

Contrast that with Poile's Nashville Predators, a team that started the season 2-6 in large part because ownership induced an offseason fire sale that saw No. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun, All-Star forwards Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg, All-Star defenseman Kimmo Timonen, and-well-regarded forward Scott Hartnell auctioned off or allowed to walk out the door because of budget issues. Complicating that, the Preds then suffered the loss of star forward Steve Sullivan and up-and coming defenseman Shea Weber to long-term injuries.

Oh, and did we mention that all this came about because there was an attempt by Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie to buy the team and move it to Canada? It was a move that brought forth a Save the Predators campaign and one of the shakiest of rescue bids all time all while current owner Craig Leipold was slashing the budget, then selling the team and, eventually, buying the Minnesota Wild.

Not exactly conducive to team building, especially when new ownership didn't take control until near the start of the season and still hasn't finished off its financing in regards to an arena lease. But take another look at this supposed "failed franchise" and you see a team that has never stopped competing.

With a lineup of holdovers and newcomers and a pair of goalies no one outside of Nashville ever even heard of let alone regarded, Poile has cobbled together a team that just might slip into the eighth and final playoff spot in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. The feeling grew to a near certainty after Tuesday's 4-3 overtime win at St. Louis in a game the Blues led 3-0 after the opening period of play.

A good team doesn't come back to win a game like that and then squander its remaining chances, especially when the two remaining games on its schedule are a home rematch with the Blues and a season-ender with the gallant but still lowly Chicago Blackhawks.

Any GM who can guide a team to a playoff spot under dire circumstances isn't just good at his job, he is exceptional. Now, I'll give a nod to George McPhee of Washington in this regard, given that he made solid acquisitions at the trade deadline to put an already up-and-coming team into position to at least contend for a playoff spot in the East. But McPhee and his in-season replacement coach Bruce Boudreau didn't have near the on- and off-ice problems that Poile and his head coach, Barry Trotz, did.

"Nobody gets a free pass," Poile told reporters this week. "But as a team, with everything that happened -- from the sale of the team to losing top players to injuries and inconsistencies -- I think it has been a very good year to this point.''

That comes about in large part because Poile filled the holes on his roster with lesser-paid players who were willing to work hard. It also happened because Poile and Trotz and the rest of the coaching staff pushed their guys to play beyond what was expected and perhaps even beyond what the players expected of themselves.

It hasn't gone as smoothly as, say, the year-to-year efforts of the Detroit Red Wings, but it has gone well. Goalie Chris Mason played well at times, but when he stumbled, the little known Dan Ellis stepped up and won 22 games. To date, Ellis has the league's best save percentage (.924). When he seemed to stumble in the face of the pressure, Mason came back in and made some season-saving contributions.

Pick-up players who were thought to be on the downside of their careers --veteran forward Martin Gelinas and veteran defenseman Greg de Vries, to name just two -- made significant contributions as did veteran journeyman Radek Bonk. None were a full-scale replacement for Kariya or Forsberg, but they supported holdovers like Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont while helping to carry the emerging kids like Weber, Alexander Radulov, Scott Nichol, Jordin Tootoo and Vern Fiddler, all of whom had career seasons.

Poile's team earned 110 points last season and then he saw it ripped apart by changes entirely outside his control. He didn't whine, didn't quit. He simply went out and rebuilt on the fly, producing a team that isn't quite as good, but in its own way has accomplished every bit as much -- maybe even more than the one that preceded it.

When you compare the current Preds to, say, the Buffalo Sabres who won the Presidents' Trophy last season and are likely to miss the playoffs this time around solely on self-inflicted wounds from management, or the sputtering Senators (last season's Eastern Conference champions), or other so-called good teams who didn't have near the problems but are likely to end with less success, the difference is Poile, Trotz. and the way they do their business.

Hands down the best management team in the game this season.

Classic Nabokov

Should be interesting to see who gets the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender this season. GMs tend to think in a herd mentality and seemingly all season they had Vancouver's Roberto Luongo at the head of the pack largely because he carried the Canucks to the playoffs last spring and has been their only reason for optimism this time around, but Luongo has faltered badly in the closing weeks. Old reliable, Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils, seems poised to take over the top spot, but the San Jose Sharks are making a case for Evgeni Nabokov and it's a good one.

With a single-season team record of 46 wins, Nabokov had a shot to tie Brodeur's NHL mark of 48, but has put his team ahead of self and will accept a day of rest so that coach Ron Wilson can give backup Brian Boucher a bit of work prior to the start of the playoffs.

That's not to say that Nabokov is happy about not having at least a chance to tie Brodeur, but he understands the thinking behind it.

Brodeur has 43 wins so far and a better save percentage (.920) than Nabokov (.910), but the Sharks netminder has a slightly better goals-against average (2.14 as opposed to 2.16). Given that GMs like consistency and reliability, one would think the nod will go to Brodeur who has won the Vezina in three of the last four seasons, but Nabokov may have a shot. He should finish with the most wins in the league, and in the more competitive West, that could sway some voters.

Praying for Perry

The Ducks are hoping to get forward Corey Perry back sometime during the playoffs. They may actually be praying for his return.

Perry has been out of the lineup with a severe laceration in his right quadriceps muscle suffered when he was accidentally cut by a skate in a game against Colorado on March 6. Despite the lost time, Perry is still the Ducks' leading goal scorer, with 29.

There are rumors that Perry could be ready at some point in the first round, but it may be wishful thinking or even a planted bit of encouragement for the troops that are being asked to play hard and hold on until he returns. The Ducks have the fewest goals scored of any team that is contending for a playoff spot this season, averaging a paltry 2.39 per contest with 106 at home and a mere 85 on the road.

Calder dark horse

Since they've fallen out of playoff contention, you don't hear too many reports of possible postseason awards for Phoenix Coyotes, but they do have a stellar, if largely unnoticed, rookie in center Peter Mueller.

Mueller ranks second in goals among rookies (22), one behind Chicago center Jonathan Toews. His 53 points are well off the pace of another Chicago rookie, Patrick Kane, who will likely win the Calder Trophy this season, but those 53 points are good for third overall and that's not bad for a 19-year-old who came into the league with a simply awful team and helped make it better.

And while he's listed as a center, Mueller has also been asked to fill in at both right and left wing because of injuries and a falloff in production among the other wings. He did that and still kept contributing.

He likely won't win the award, especially with a -9 on the plus-minus sheets, but he's had a season worth noting in that on his best days he was a reason the Coyotes rose from hopeless to, for a time at least, playoff contenders.

Fun with facts

If the Sabres do miss the playoffs, it will be the first time they and their longtime division rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, will have failed to show up in the postseason at the same time...

...Since the Columbus Blue Jackets came into the league seven seasons ago, they still haven't played a postseason game. The Florida Panthers have been around a little longer, but they too will miss for a seventh straight season...

...If the Philadelphia Flyers make the postseason, and that's a big if as of today, it could lead to the first ever playoff game appearance for goalie Martin Biron. A first-round pick (16th overall) in 1995, Biron has played 376 NHL games, but he never got a postseason start behind Dominik Hasek and then Ryan Miller in Buffalo. Biron played 16 games with the Flyers last season after a trade-deadline deal, but they failed to qualify. He's played 60 games with them this time around, but they could miss again...

...Biron's 376 pales in comparison to current league-leader Olli Jokinen who at the end of this season will have played 723 NHL games without a postseason appearance. Jokinen was singled out by Florida Panthers coach and GM Jacques Martin as having come up short in the team's quest to qualify for the postseason. The stinging criticism will likely be the beginning of the end for Jokinen as a member of that franchise.

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